There is a clinical need to enhance functional recovery of injured peripheral nerves. Local administration of neurotrophic factors (NTFs) after surgical repair has been proposed for this purpose. Little is known, however, on the optimal local dose and dosing frequency of NTFs in a peripheral nerve defect. For increasing our knowledge on biologically relevant local NTFs concentrations and for making available an in vitro assay for assessing the bioactivity of NTFs in connection with implantable localized delivery systems, we developed in this study a bioassay for NTFs, which is based on dorsal root ganglion (DRG) explants from E9 (9 days old) chicken embryos. Axonal elongation and extent of axonal branching was analyzed microscopically after addition of glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF), each alone and in combination. GDNF significantly promoted axonal elongation, but only little axonal branching, whereas NGF induced extensive axonal branching with modest axonal elongation. The combination of GDNF and NGF exerted a synergistic effect on the axonal elongation, axonal branching and growth kinetics. GDNF and NGF also enhanced the expression of their respective functional receptors Ret and TrkA on the DRG neurons. This information should be relevant for the development of implants containing NTFs and on drug therapy of damaged peripheral nerves.